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Hume's account of our belief in external objects


To: Max W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hume's account of our belief in external objects
Date: 19th April 2011 13:09

Dear Max,

Thank you for your email of 8 April, with your essay for the University of London BA Modern Philosopher: Descartes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume module, in response to the question, ''It is in vain to ask whether there be body or not? That is a point which we must take for granted in all our reasonings.' Did Hume succeed in providing a satisfactory explanation for the belief in body?'

The section 'On Scepticism With Regard to the Senses' is one of my favourite sections from Hume, so I may be a little biased in my view about the various commentators such as Bennett, Pears and Stroud. I don't think that they have given him a fair run for his money. The problem is that they put too much stress on Hume's seemingly despairing conclusion, as well as the circumstantial evidence that this discussion is omitted from the Enquiry.

There is something Hume missed, something Kant saw. Hume didn't quite get there but he was very close. The main obstacle is his view of his own enterprise as doing for 'human nature' what Newton did for physical nature, offering a complete and adequate account of how we succeed in representing the world, forming beliefs, expressing moral and aesthetic judgements etc., in terms of the theory of ideas.

It is Hume's settled view, which he never altered, that 'bodies' are fictions. The term 'fiction' is somewhat misleading, or at least has the wrong resonances. Suppose we called them instead 'theoretical posits'. Instrumentalism is still a viable option in the philosophy of science. Hume, one might say, takes an instrumental rather than a realist view about the theoretical posits we know as bodies.

This makes Hume an idealist. There is a serious tension here with his view of himself as merely offering a theory of human nature. But there would have been a way to resolve that tension if he had taken the next logical step, which was left for Kant.

You spend a considerable portion of your essay discussing the question whether Hume is right to think that the vulgar fail to distinguish perceptions from objects. According to Hume, there are merely the subjective impressions and the fictions which we construct on their basis, while the vulgar think that these impressions are the very objects themselves.

Kant's brilliant stroke was to side with the vulgar, while retaining the essential assumption of idealism. The point of the Refutation of Idealism (from the 2nd edition of the Critique of Pure Reason) is to argue that the given of 'intuition' (Hume's impressions) can only be described in terms of concepts of external objects (the fictions or theoretical posits, from Hume's point of view). Only in this way can we give a coherent account of the identity of the subject of experience (remember Hume's difficulty with accounting for the identity of a 'self').

The essential point is rather easy to grasp. It is not, and cannot be, a mere accident that my stream of subjective impressions exhibits the character of 'perception of external objects'. If it didn't, I would not be able to describe it at all, indeed there could not be a way of distinguishing the self from its perceptions. My beliefs about an external world have the status of a *theory*. This is an internal representation, a framework, into which I fit every impression -- the impression of the fire at different times, the glasses, the squeaking door etc. etc. This view is inconsistent with any kind of 'sense datum' theory, because if you could describe your sense data, as they are, you wouldn't need a theory of the world, contrary to the Refutation of Idealism.

The best account of this is in a rather difficult book, 'Holistic Explanation' by Christopher Peacocke (1979). However, you might find some useful reviews if you do a web search. (In the book, Peacocke castigates Bennett, amongst others, for failing to grasp how this 'holistic' theory of experience is meant to get off the ground.)

The external world, in short, is a construction. This is what Kant calls the phenomenal world or the world of appearances. The next question, which we need not go into, is whether this construction could be 'all there is', how do you account for 'we' etc. Strawson in 'The Bounds of Sense' criticizes Kant for introducing a distinction between appearances and 'things in themselves', phenomena and noumena. Whether or not he is right in doing this, 'Kant without noumena' would be the closest to what Hume was trying to do, and very nearly achieved.

What Hume recognized, perhaps to a greater extent than Kant, is the difficulty in simultaneously holding an idealist metaphysical view about the nature of reality, and operating in the world as we all do, taking 'bodies' for granted. The despairing conclusion *is* ironic. Hume is struggling, but it is a struggle to find the appropriate *words* here to describe his momentous discovery. He can barely do it. We are illuded, all the time. Philosophy shows the truth, but it is very difficult to keep that truth in focus when the everyday world bears down on us so relentlessly. What a genius he was!

All the best,